Below are the remarks delivered by award-winning playwright Tony Kushner at Purchase College’s 36th Commencement on May 16.
This business of receiving an honorary degree, this transaction, perhaps I ought to say, goes basically like this: someone or some group here at SUNY Purchase has decided to honor me for my writing and speaking, and several decades of hard working psychotherapists stand behind me imploring me not to question too extensively the wisdom of that decision, and my parents who taught me how to behave in public stand behind me imploring me to at least have the good taste and graciousness not to question the decision publically; and in exchange for the honor, I appear onstage, most often to accept diploma and hood and shake hands and wave, or occasionally, as is the case today, to say a few words. Whether silent or speaking, I’m decoration, I’m here to help adorn, decorate, make more festive this most festive occasion.
I love participating in commencements because, well, I’m a pretty depressed person, I read the newspaper every day and so of course I’m depressed, who isn’t depressed nowadays, everyone is depressed, you are depressed, or you ought to be, not today, of course, when you are celebrating, but usually you are depressed, your pet has probably gotten a contact depression just sitting next to you while you read the newspaper; I’m depressed and most of the time, when I’m not in rehearsal or, you know, as we say in Hollywood, taking a meeting or doing lunch, I have to sit alone with myself, all alone with myself staring at a blank page or the ghastly white glare of an empty laptop screen, wondering how it’s possible that at a mere 51 years of age any trace of talent or intelligence or moxie I once possessed could so abruptly, so unceremoniously, have departed, leaving not a trace behind; depressed and lonely, I attend graduations, looking to mooch off the day’s celebratory spirits, the bright sexy seductive promise of a future of change, novelty, discovery, progress — even on a rainy day like today, the radiance attendant upon real accomplishment, the bacchic non-Euclidean ecstasy of liberation – joy, in other words, sheer lovely human joy, rises up to turn stormclouds and rainfall into rococo chariots transporting Divinity and the promise of pennies from heaven.
I come to mooch off your joy, not to dampen it. The price of my admission, since I haven’t done the work you’ve had to do to be here, is that I must speak to you; that’s the deal, that’s how I can get in at the banquet table of your joy. It’s sometimes a complicated deal: a hard assignment. I began speaking at commencements in the mid-1990s, during the Clinton Interruption of the Reagan Counter-Revolution, and I have continued speaking at commencements, at shorter and greater lengths, throughout the resumption of the Reagan Era, through these past eight years, these long, long, long years of an administration whose every action outflanks one’s wildest satirical impulses and surpasses even the most hyperbolically alarmist imagination. I am, as I mentioned, depressed, but my depression these days isn’t the depression I was born with, not my birthright depression, it’s a new kind of depression, it’s like the depression you get when you put a lab rat in a cage and he learns that if he pushes one button he gets corn and if he pushes another button he gets malt, and he’s happy when suddenly, Oh No, he pushes one button and he gets shocked, but that’s OK, the other button still dispenses malt, until oh no, now THAT button shocks him, maybe he’ll try the corn button, maybe that button will now –OW! No, that shocks too! Oh no! Try the malt butt – OW! Oh NO! Try the – OW! The rat gets depressed. I am the rat’s poor earth-born companion and fellow mortal. Ow! I feel his pain. I know it well. It isn’t depression; call it by its correct name: it’s terror. The world, which once seemed a flowing fountain of corn and malt, now stands revealed as the cage it actually is, a prisonhouse of no good possibilities and a future we cannot see but which will bring, we guess, more shocks, further fear, further terror. Ow! The subprime mortgage collapse! Ow! The bloody, criminal miasma in Iraq! Ow! Global warming! Ow! The cyclone and the junta in Burma! Ow! Ow! The earthquake and the lack of construction standards in China! Ow! The President of the Unites States stands before the Knesset and deliberately – to the extent that anything this President does truly merits the adverbial form of the word “deliberation” – and deliberately confuses appeasement and diplomacy! Ow!
The conundrum of the speaker at a banquet table of joy laid out in a prisonhouse cage of terror: Everyone who speaks at a commencement ceremony is a threat to the festive spirit, everyone who opens his or her mouth near a live mic at commencement may well prove to be the buzzkill. That’s how menaced, that’s how fragile our joy is.
But maybe that’s what graduation day is intended to teach us, maybe that’s The Point: We gather together to celebrate, among other things, the proximity, the disquietingly vital intimacy of Terror and Joy.
I mean let’s face it, you’re not entirely joyful, are you? No! You’re anxious, too. You’re Free! But free to do what? The Future awaits! But what will it bring?! Are those grey skies outside a canopy concealing a delightful surprise, or... are they a portent of future disaster!?!?
Perhaps I’m kidding myself, perhaps I come not to mooch off your joy, but to seek out kindred souls, souls similar to mine, souls brimfull of PANIC!!!
But if under your joy is panic, I believe that under that panic, that terror, is more joy, a deeper, truer, stronger joy: hope, desire, expectation that the stormclouds will deliver not discouragement and disillusion but some bright sexy God, or some unanticipated goodness, to Earth.
And so yesterday as I sat at my desk facing the horror of my empty laptop screen, my head filled with newsprint terrors, wondering how I was going to speak to you, what it was I would say, the phone rings, and it’s my husband, informing me that all of a sudden it has become unconstitutional in the state of California to deny same-sex couples the right to marry! Joy! These glad tidings are followed by the fear that homophobes in the Fall will manage to adulterate the California State Constitution’s beautiful echo of the simple moral majesty of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal treatment under the law. That fear’s followed by hope, my husband reminding me that a likely heavy big-D Democratic turnout, far greater in number than the Republican turnout in the primaries, in November will favor the defeat of the homophobes’ plans; which hope is followed by the depressing news that neither candidate for the Democratic nomination is going to openly disavow the separate-but-equal discriminatory treatment implicit in any exclusion of LGBT citizens from the legally-sanctioned estate of marriage; followed by the news that Governor Schwarzenegger, who’s a Republican, sort of, is going make a break with his party and not support the homophobes, and so on...
My point is: Joy and Terror follow fast upon the heels of one another, and this is how the world’s set spinning, and the trick is not to give up pushing those buttons. Don’t be afraid to push buttons, food or electroshock buttons or other people’s buttons, DON’T BE AFRAID! Keep hoping, keep hungering, for corn and malt, or, if neither corn nor malt but only nasty shocks are forthcoming...
Start to look around you, start to fight for a way out of the cage.
Thank you for inviting me to share this gloomy, glorious, scary day with you. Thank you for this lovely honor, which means a lot to me. And a million billion mazels to you all, to your parents and teachers.
Make us proud: We’ve been waiting for you!